This article was published in the September 2016 issue of the Irish American News under the “Guilty Pleasures” column.
I admire people who sink easily into a path and follow it. The mantra these days is to “follow your passion,” as if your whole life will be revealed to you if you manage to find your passion and then follow it, wherever it goes.
When I sat down with Sarah Jordan to understand her journey in the demanding culinary industry, I was surprised and inspired by her ability to experiment along the way, to not assume a straight path to an ideal of success. She lets her experiences guide her. I think in part it’s her lack of Americaness. Jordan was born and grew up in Dublin.
“I’ve always really enjoyed all aspects of restaurants, from serving, to busing, to cooking to baking, to being support staff, to being on the floor. It’s just something I really love doing,” she explained.
In her home city she knew the butcher, the locals, and her neighbor Niall, who would pitch fresh rhubarb over the wall that divided their back gardens. If Jordan was playing in the garden and his head would appear over the wall, he’d ask her mother if she wanted any rhubarb. If Jordan’s mother said yes, Niall would say, ‘Okay, stand back.’
“Bushels of rhubarb would come flying over the wall and then it was rhubarb everything from then out, rhubarb tart, rhubarb jam; anything my mother could put rhubarb on she’d put rhubarb on,” said Jordan.
Her humble and neighborly approach to life fit with her decision to buy Johnny’s Grill, a Logan Square neighborhood staple that first opened in 1973. According to Jordan, Mr. Johnny owned the grill until the 1980s when he sold it to two Greek brothers. After one of the brothers passed away two years ago the grill stood empty while the neighbors wondered what would become of their local.
Jordan, who has lived in Logan Square for many years, knew she wanted to preserve Johnny’s. “We kept so much stuff…the sign outside, the stools. The only thing that really changed was the staff and the menu,” she said.
Being part of the fabric of the community, and being able to add to it, is important to her. Almost everyone who works at the grill lives in the neighborhood.
“I love listening to the neighborhood stories, all the happenings that have gone around the square. That’s the nice part of the diner. You’re cooking for the person who’s sitting right there.”
A regular crowd returned to the grill after initial skepticism from long-time residents who loved the old version – they came around after they tried the new menu a few times.
When I sunk my teeth into the full Irish breakfast I understood why they put down their guard and settled back into the homey café, which is the same inside, just brighter and fresher from a much-needed deep clean.
The menu is simple, with breakfast all day, but more than what I’d expect from a traditional greasy spoon. The double cheeseburger, eggs Benedict, and fish and chips are a back to the basics approach done without fuss, although Jordan was surprised to become known for the cheeseburger, which has gained fame in the Chicago food scene.
As I tucked into my black pudding, I watched a few plates of delicious-looking avocado toasts float by and admired the vegetable tarts standing by on a large baking tray waiting for their new homes in hungry bellies, and there were many that hot Sunday afternoon.
And of course Sarah has a guilty pleasure, one she cannot live without, especially on road trips: the largest bag of crunchy flaming hot Cheetos she can find. “I want my fingertips orange. You eat so much your mouth is on fire and you literally cannot lick the orange off your fingers they are just stained,” she said.
Our hour-long conversation went by in a flash; I could have chatted away about food and Ireland all evening. Her company is easy, but don’t let that fool you into thinking she’ll let you off the hook in the kitchen. We were briefly interrupted by one of her chefs and I got a glimpse of Sarah’s direct, no-nonsense manner. But as soon as she turned back to the thread of our conversation, her dimply smile and humor returned with ease.
Yes, I’ll be back for the simple, but tasty food and a bit of craic with Sarah.
by Sarah Jordan
611 g Rhubarb 386 g Strawberries 214 g Rhubarb 1⁄2 Qt of water Juice of 1 lemon
Chop rhubarb and strawberries into slices. Combine all ingredients in a bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Place the bowl over a pot of boiling water, allow to sit over the baine marie for two hours. Strain the mixture through a fine mesh sieve, and discard the leftover fruit pulp. Strain liquid once more through a coffee filter. This is easiest when liquid is still warm. Now you have a beautiful clear rhubarb consomme, keep refrigerated.
This consome can be enjoyed in many ways, like a dessert soup, turned into jello, frozen like a granite, or a nice component in a cocktail.